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A Shana Tova Card showing Jewish Displaced Persons who survived the Holocaust landing on shores of Israel

David Matas
photo by Rhonda Prepes

B'nai Brith Canada Criticizes CMHR: Decision to Exclude Material on Birth of Israel in Holocaust Gallery is A Serious Misstep

Human rights lessons which flow from the Holocaust include the creation of the State of Israel

by David Matas, Senior Legal Counsel August 10, 213

Winnipeg, August 7, 2013-- The decision of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR), as stated by Dr. Clint Curle, Head of Stakeholder Relations, to exclude material on the establishment of the State of Israel in its Holocaust exhibits is a serious misstep and must be immediately corrected according to B’nai Brith Canada.

 “The question is not whether the establishment of the State of Israel is part of the historical aspect of the Holocaust, rather whether the human rights lessons which flow from the Holocaust include the creation of the State of Israel," commented David Matas, International Human Rights Lawyer and Senior Legal Counsel for B'nai Brith Canada.

According to Matas, "The answer to that question is clearly yes since to come to grips with the human rights lessons of the Holocaust means addressing the establishment of the State of Israel." 

David Matas says:

Clint Curle, the Head of Stakeholder Relations at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, has stated that the Museum "has chosen not to include material on the establishment of the State of Israel in the Holocaust gallery."[1]  B'nai Brith Canada has a response to that statement.

 In assessing this Museum choice, one must keep in mind that the Museum is not a Holocaust museum nor an atrocities museum nor a history museum.  The museum is a human rights museum.

So in assessing whether material on the establishment of the State of Israel should be in the Museum Holocaust gallery, the question is not so much whether the establishment of the State of Israel is properly part of the historical story of the Holocaust as whether the human rights lessons which flow from the Holocaust include, as a significant element worthy of mention, the creation of the State of Israel.  Our answer to that question is yes, that to come to grips with the human rights lessons of the Holocaust means addressing the establishment of the State of Israel.

The issue arises prior to, during and after the Holocaust.  Prior to the Holocaust, one can say that, if the State of Israel had existed, the Holocaust would not have happened.  One can see this both from the Jewish and the Nazi perspective.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, diagnosed antisemitism as a disease from which the Jews suffered because of their statelessness. He considered that antisemitism would be resolved "on a political basis" through the creation of Jewish state.  He predicted that, once a state was created for the Jewish people, the Jews would become like any other people.  They would have their quarrels with other nations.  But those quarrels would be no different from the quarrels nations then had with each other.  He argued in his pioneering 1896 pamphlet "The Jewish State" that the advent of the Jewish state "would put an end to antisemitism."

Britain, which before and during World War II controlled the territory of what is now Israel, imposed strict quotas on Jewish (but not Arab) immigration to that territory.  Jews beyond the quota who attempted to reach what is now Israel were sent back by the British authorities, upholding the quota system.

Before the Holocaust, the non-existence of the State of Israel did not just though damn those who attempted to immigrate there beyond the quota system.  It was a generator of the Holocaust in its entirety.

The Nazis at the beginning of World War II attempted to rid Germany and the countries the Nazis conquered of all Jews through expulsion.  The mass killings of Jews began only after it became clear to the Nazis that expulsion was not available as an option[2].  If Israel had been in existence, mass expulsion of Jews would have been possible - to Israel.  

During the Holocaust, the same British quotas prevented Jews beyond the quota from seeking refuge in the territory.  While Nazi border controls and the already determined extermination policy made escape impossible for most, there were many either who did escape to what is now Israel and were turned back or could have escaped but were stopped from ever embarking by the British quotas and blockade[3].

Immediately after the Holocaust and World War II, the community of nations adopted the Charter of the United Nations, in 1945, which endorsed the principle of self determination of peoples[4].  The adoption of this principle on the heels of the Holocaust, with the Holocaust first and foremost in the minds of the drafters, was an endorsement of the right to self determination of the Jewish people.

The human rights superstructure built after World War II, including the right to self determination of peoples, was an effort to close the barn door after the horse had escaped, an attempt to learn the lessons of the Holocaust, to prevent, after the Holocaust, its happening, an exercise in "never again".  The principle of self determination of peoples was part of this exercise.

After the Holocaust, one can see a reflection of the need, in human rights terms, for the existence of the State of Israel.  There was a direct link between its absence and the failure to settle refugees after World War II.  

It was no easier to place Jewish refugees immediately after the Holocaust than it was during the Holocaust.  Although millions had been killed, there were still too many Jewish refugees for anyone to be willing to take them in any significant numbers.

Resettlement countries began accepting Jewish refugees from Europe in significant numbers only after the State of Israel was created.  Before its creation, the fear that Jewish immigration to other countries would be unmanageable prevented refugee outflows to resettlement to those countries[5].

Global reaction to the Holocaust generated the human rights revolution and a whole sequence of human rights instruments and mechanisms.  One of those mechanisms was the Refugee Convention agreed in 1951 but in negotiation for years before, formally since 1947.   Israel in 1949 became one of 13 members of the committee which drafted the Convention.

The Convention, settled and signed in 1951 in Geneva, provides that a person, once a refugee, ceases to be a refugee if

        "he can no longer, because the circumstances in connection with which he has been recognized as a refugee have ceased to exist, continue to refuse to avail himself of the protection of the country of his nationality"[6].  

There is a proviso to this cessation clause.  The proviso states that this cessation clause would not apply to a person

        "who is able to invoke compelling reasons arising out of previous persecution for refusing to avail himself of the protection of the country of nationality".  

That proviso, like more or less all of the human rights standards adopted after the Holocaust, was adopted because of the Holocaust experience.

The drafters of the Refugee Convention felt that, even though the Nazis had been defeated and Jewish refugees no longer had anything to fear from them in the countries of origin of the refugees, it would have been inhumane to require the refugees to return to the countries they fled.  The perpetrators, albeit disarmed, remained.  The communities of the survivors had been destroyed. Relatives, co-religionist friends, neighbours, colleagues had been murdered. Institutions had been ransacked and demolished.  To require the survivors to live amongst the ruins of their communities in the company of the perpetrators would have been cruel.  

This Convention, with this proviso, was a recognition of the need for resettlement of Jewish refugees away from the scene of the Holocaust.  It was consequently a human rights acknowledgement of the need for the existence of the state of Israel.

By the time of the completion of this Convention, it had been demonstrated that the creation of Israel was essential for the resettlement of Jewish post Holocaust refugees not only in Israel, but also elsewhere.  Without the existence of Israel and its welcome to the bulk of Holocaust Jewish refugees, the global community would have been unwilling to take the rest.  That is a regrettable fact the post Holocaust, pre-Israel failure in Jewish refugee resettlement had amply demonstrated.

The principle of self determination does not coalesce in all cases into the right of statehood. It does so though where, in the words of the Refugee Convention, there are "compelling reasons arising out of previous persecution for refusing" to exercise that right within the boundaries of existing states.  Indeed, once it becomes inhumane to expect surviving victims to live amongst their perpetrators, the only realistic recourse, as the Jewish experience has shown, is the expression of the right to self determination through the creation of a new state[7].  


The creation of the State of Israel has not ended antisemitism as Herzl forecast it would.  Herzl's hope was that, through the creation of a Jewish state, the Jewish people would become a nation like all others.  But, just the opposite has happened.  The Jewish state has come to be treated like the Jewish people.  Israel has become the Jew amongst nations - outcast, defamed and demonized.

 The fact that the creation of the State of Israel has not ended antisemitism shows that there is no one magic bullet for combating antisemitism.  Yet, the establishment of the State of Israel has created a powerful global tool to combat antisemitism.

Antisemitism and its younger brother anti-Zionism exist in virtually every country, whether there are Jewish communities in those countries are not. The Government of Israel has institutional and territorial reach beyond the places where there are large active Jewish communities.  

Many of the remedies for the wrong of antisemitism are governmental or inter-governmental.  The Government of Israel, as a Government, has an access to other governments and intergovernmental institutions that the non-governmental world does not have.

Institutional rivalry of the Jewish organizations prevents any one organization from being accepted as the convenor the rest.  The Government of Israel is a convenor acceptable at all.

Finally, when all else fails, Israel remains a place for Jewish refugees.  Calls to kill Jews still echo throughout the halls of assembly of bigots world wide.  Israel remains a haven from these calls.

Including material on the establishment of the State of Israel in the Holocaust gallery of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights makes sense then because it is an integral part of the human rights story in which the Holocaust embedded.  Nonetheless, this embedding is bound to raise other questions which would need to be addressed.  

One is the relationship between the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.  While the Holocaust was a significant component in the acceptance of the necessity of the State of Israel and its recognition once founded, it was far from the only reason for its existence.  

Zionism began, as the quote from Herzl makes clear, long before the Holocaust.  Moreover, though the combat against antisemitism was a component of Zionism, there was more to Zionism to that.  Also looming large were cultural and religious factors. Religious freedom and cultural survival are, of course, also human rights values.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts both.

Religious Zionists saw return to the land of Israel as a religious imperative.  Secular Zionists saw the existence of Israel as necessary for the survival and growth of Jewish culture, literature and languages.

The Zionist leaders after the Holocaust who established the State of Israel were, for the most part, not Jewish refugees from the Holocaust but rather pre-Holocaust Zionist residents of the land which is now Israel. Many of these initial leaders had come to the land which is now Israel out of religious or cultural Zionist conviction, rather than to escape persecution.

As well, if one looks demographically at Israel today, the bulk of Jewish immigrants who people Israel are not Holocaust refugees or their descendants.  They are either displaced Jews from other Middle Eastern countries or post Holocaust Jewish refugees and immigrants.  

A second question that would need to be addressed is the linkage between violations of human rights of Palestinians and the establishment of the State of Israel.  From our perspective, the linkage is anti-Zionism.

The human rights of Palestinians have been violated not by the establishment of the State of Israel but rather by the anti-Zionist rejection of that establishment.  Anti-Zionists, those who refuse to accept the existence of the State of Israel, have incited hatred, war and terrorism against Israel.

A good deal of this incitement consists of phoney allegations of Israeli human rights violations.  Israel is accused of violation of standards which do not exist, which are applied only to Israel and no other state.  Alternatively Israel is accused of violations of generally accepted universal standards through fabricated facts.

These incitements spur Palestinians to attack Israeli Jews.   The State of Israel in turn defends itself.  Goading Palestinians to attack Jews respects the rights of neither Jews nor Palestinians.  Both peoples suffer.  The blame for this goading falls squarely on anti-Zionist propagandists.  Israel, like all targets of incitement, is totally innocent.

 Placing the responsibility for the violations of the rights of Palestinians where it belongs, on the shoulders of the anti-Zionists, does not change the fact of violations of Palestinian rights nor the need for redress for those violations.  It does however change the form that this redress would take and the context in which it would occur.  

There were more Jews displaced from their homes in the Middle East because of the anti-Zionist incitement and attacks against Israel than Palestinians. It would be unjust to provide redress to Palestinian refugees without at the same time providing equivalent redress to the even larger Jewish Middle Eastern displaced population.

Redress is not only compensation.  It is also recognition of the historical reality of victimization of both peoples, to which the Museum itself can contribute.

Given the scope and scale of the Holocaust, it is impossible to say that the Holocaust is part of a larger story.  The Holocaust is the largest story ever told.  It is the defining moment of human experience, the moment when, in a secular sense, humanity was expelled from the Garden of Eden, the moment when humanity acquired the knowledge of its own evil, the bottomless depths of the wrongs of which it was capable.

Yet, if one looks at the Holocaust in relation to the State of Israel from a human rights perspective, there is more to be said than just the linkage between the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. The linkage should be there, in the Museum.   "Nonetheless, in making that linkage, we should add  both the factors beyond the Holocaust which led to the establishment of Israel and the responsibility of anti-Zionism for the victimization of the Palestinians."

David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg and Senior Honorary Counsel to B'nai Brith Canada.

[1]      Winnipeg Jewish Review July 16, 2013

[2]     See Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, "Nazi racial and Jewish policy"

[3]     See the Jewish Virtual Library, "Immigration to Israel: Aliyah during World War II and Its Aftermath"

[4]     Article 1(2).

[5]     Irving Abella and Harold Troper None is Too Many, page 279.

[6]     Clause 1C.(5)

[7]     See David Matas "Chapter Thirteen: Israel and the Right to Self Determination" in Aftershock: Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism.

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